Saturday, January 9, 2016
Director Report Card: David O. Russell (2015)
Any time a new David O. Russell movie comes out, inevitably I sigh. The man who made quirky screwball comedies like “Flirting with Disaster” or “I Heart Huckabees’ is no longer with us. David O. Russell makes prestige dramas that win awards and star Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, and Bradley Cooper. When “Joy” was announced, it was clear which David O. Russell was responsible for this. Not only did it star all of the above actors, not only was it slotted in a plum award season-friendly release date, it was also based on the inspiring true life story of self-made millionaire Joy Mangano. Do other people get excited for this stuff? Or is everyone else as tired of this bullshit as me?
As a kid, Joy had a talent for creating inventions. As an adult, these ambitions had to be put aside. Joy got married, had three kids, got divorced, fell into a dead-end job, and had to deal with her dysfunctional family. As her home life becomes more stressful, Joy is struck by a moment of inspiration. Using her daughter’s crayons, she draws up a design for a self-wringing mop. After cashing in some favors and investing a lot of her own money, Joy gets on a television shopping network. Functioning as her own pitchman, Joy’s invention becomes an best-seller. However, her troubles are only beginning.
Mediocre reviews and underwhelming box office now means “Joy’s” Oscar chances are in peril. Whether or not the film scores any nominations remains to be seen. Considering it aims for the fences in that department, it might still snag a few. Yes, “Joy” is based off an inspiring true story. Yes, it sets out to be both quirky and heart-touching. The film is narrated by a character, quickly revealed to be deceased. At all turns, this narrator reminds us of Joy’s can-do, never-say-die attitude. The whole thing wraps up tied with a perfect, little bow. An emotional, touchy-feely note concludes the film, showing us the character in a “happily-ever-after” ending. Not only is the oddball filmmaker David O. Russel once was gone, he’s dead and buried. If “Joy” baited the Academy any harder, it would collapses in a black hole of self-importance and self-involvement.
At times, you can see the more interesting filmmaker Russell once was striving to poke through the routine material. “Joy,” for example, has a soap opera framing device. The film begins with a lengthy sequence of a black-and-white soap opera. As Joy’s mom watches her shows throughout, we gets peaks into the overheated world of day-time television. (One of the soaps, with a supernatural element, seems inspired by “Dark Shadows.”) In the first half of the movie, Russell’s camera often cuts to the soaps. At one point, Joy enters one via a dream sequence. After the first act, this element disappears. Why is it in the movie? How does it comment on the story’s event? Concrete reasons are never provided.
Maybe Russell was compensating for the rest of the movie’s utter boredom. There are other quirky elements tossed into the movie, seemingly for the hell of it. There’s a burst pipe in the mother’s bedroom. The plumber brought into fix it stays around longer than usual. Before long, the mother develops a relationship with the man. In another dream sequence, Joy and her ex-husband share a musical number. Was that moment tossed in to give the movie a shot at the Best Original Song category? “Joy” feels that way often, incredibly mannered yet also strangely slapdash and tossed together.
America’s next great actress. Sadly, Lawrence has done nothing but disappoint me since then. When not sleep-walking through franchises like “The Hunger Games” or “X-Men,” she’s been shrieking grotesquely in “American Hustle” or “Serena.” As mediocre as “Joy” is, at least Lawrence seems engaged with the material. She’s feisty, determined, focused on her goal and able to cut through the bullshit. At the same time, Lawrence never takes it too far over the top. Joy remains grounded, wracked with fears and doubts that her dream is sinking her family into debt. It’s a good performance, maybe Lawrence’s best in a while.
“Joy” has a sturdy protagonist but its supporting cast remains more varied. Many of Joy’s family members fall into the shrill, overdone character types Russell has visited in his weaker films. Robert DeNiro as the dad plays a clueless mook, whose “good” advice comes close to ruining his daughter’s life several times. Virginia Madsen as the mother has such a cartoonish, one note part that even an actress as talented as Madsen can’t bring any real life to the role. Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s sister probably gets the worst of it. The character is in the same mold as the bickering sisters in “The Fighter” or Lawrence’s obnoxious wife in “American Hustle.” She’s annoying, broad, and exists to manufacture contrived drama.
Yet there are a handful of decent supporting performances. Bradley Cooper dials back the over-the-top intensity he’s displayed in Russell’s other movies. As Neil Walker, the head of QVC, Cooper is understated and calm. Even when forced into dramatic situations, Cooper keeps his cool. Edgar Ramirez is the ex-husband, Diane Ladd is the wise grandmother, and Isabella Rossellini is the dad’s prickly new girlfriend. Truthfully, these roles are as one-note and stereotypical as anyone else in the movie. Still, the performers are talented enough to bring something to the role. Rossellini is fun in a bitchy way. Ladd occupies the bland mentor role with some charisma. Ramirez has a decent sense of humor. They help make a bland script go down a little smoother.
Yet for everything dull about “Joy,” there’s a handful of decent moments. Most of these moments focus on Lawrence alone. When Joy is trying to get people interested in her product, she stands outside department stores. She performs a little routine, showing the effectiveness of her product. It’s a cute moment and one cut short by intervening security guards. Joy’s first appearance on QVC has her stumbling, before finding her groove. Watching the numbers increase, the sales rolling in, is a rare moment of fun and energy in the flick. The climax of the picture has Joy confronting an enemy, previously unseen on-film, and easily dismantling him with her words. There’s plenty of problems with this, on a scripting level. Lawrence doing her thing, cutting into the guy verbally, at least wraps the boring film up on a decent moment.
Lastly, what’s with the on-the-nose soundtrack? During a sad moment, the forlorn “Expecting to Fly” by Buffalo Springfield plays. Before a character stumbles into a bad relationship, some one sings “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” The Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues” kicks in while someone performs a daring escape. Those are just the most obvious examples. If the script telling us exactly what to feel wasn’t enough, the soundtrack hammers the intended emotions into our heads. Russell’s growing budgets have given him access to pricier musical choices. That’s not really a good thing.